‘Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses. You ride the ghost train into the darkness, knowing that eventually the doors will open and you will step out into the daylight once again.’ This is author Neil Gaiman’s explanation of why we love a scary story, and it well described the experience of joining Alex Beattie and Max Scratchmann for their bloodcurdling show Edinburgh in the Shadows.
The evening began with tales about the 16th-century Scottish obsession with witchcraft, which led to 4000 executions. James the Sixth was fanatical about catching witches, who he said went around gnawing dead children’s bones.
According to psychologists, terrible tales such as these give an audience the buzz of an intense shared emotional experience. In addition, the emotions of fear and pleasure create indistinguishable physical responses in terms of heart rate, breathing and pupil dilation.
Another story from the shadows dealt with the grim life and times of Jessie King, baby farmer. In 1889 she appeared before the High Court in Edinburgh accused of the murders of children she had been paid to care for. Convicted and hanged, there was no such fate for her controlling husband.
I was reminded of the enormous appeal of the Horrible Histories series of children’s books, despite their branding as ‘glorifying and trivialising violence’ by some parents. Psychoanalysts believe we undergo the experience of a terrifying tale as a kind of safe catharsis of the horror of real life and its pressures.
But for their final trick, Beattie and Scratchmann had a different type of story – a cold-case murder. This was about George Meikle Kemp, a self-taught architect who gained the commission to design the Scott Monument, but then mysteriously drowned in the Union Canal.
Psychologist Les Lancaster believes the appeal of a mystery is intrinsic to the human mind, and part of our evolutionary heritage. He calls mysteries the ‘ultimate trail of breadcrumbs,’ inviting us to seek answers. This audience certainly enjoyed coming along for the ride. (RM)
Edinburgh in the Shadows ran until August 27th at Cowgatehead
Mark Griffiths on scary films: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-excess/201510/why-do-we-watching-scary-films
The enduring appeal of horror: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/halloween-horror-films-movies-scared-a6713446.html
Mysteries solved by Les Lancaster, professor of transpersonal psychology at Liverpool John Moores University: https://www.psychologies.co.uk/self/why-mystery-matters.html